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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen5:05 pmJun 14, 20230

In signing off on Hendler building demolition, CHAP commissioners cite safety

A dissenting commissioner decries how for years the city ignored unsafe conditions created by the building’s owner “who now walks away with a big payday”

Above: Commissioners Mayra Medeleev and Sara Langmead listen to testimony about the roofless and partially demolished Hendler Creamery building, shown on the screen behind them. (Fern Shen)

Explaining their vote to allow the 133-year-old Hendler Creamery building to be torn down, most of the members of Baltimore’s historic preservation panel cited safety.

Several mentioned a photo displayed by the building’s contract buyer, Helping Up Mission, that shows a young man passing the building where steel beams shore up the facade on East Baltimore Street.

“My fear is that the building stays the way it is, and someone walks by one day, the building falls and it killed them,” Harry Spikes, chairman of the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), declared at yesterday’s hearing.

“This is a truly beautiful old building that we should have taken care of,” Commissioner Kuo Pao Lian said ruefully, going on to explain that his support for tearing it down was a matter of “public health, safety and welfare.”

The lone vote against the tear down, however, couldn’t get past the fact that the current building owner – developer Kevin Johnson – had created the very dilapidation cited as justification for demolition.

Johnson removed the building’s walls and roof, leaving the structure open to the elements, rather than completing a promised $75 million apartment conversion.

“The person that we all know is responsible for what’s happened here is going to get a good chunk of money back out of this with very little repercussion,” noted CHAP Commissioner Peter Morrill.

“He ignored city laws, and now he’s going to walk away with a big payday. That’s really gross to me,” Morrill said.

Also “absolutely” to blame is city government, he continued.

The braced-up edifice has been tolerated – with CHAP’s and the Baltimore Housing Department’s blessing – since 2018 when Johnson was permitted to dismantle much of the historic structure, leading to its current ruinous state.

“The person responsible here is going to get a good chunk of money back out of this”  – CHAP Commissioner Peter Morrill.

“We’re talking about how criminal it is that pedestrians are forced to walk in the street because the sidewalk’s closed. But that’s illegal in Baltimore City. They’re supposed to have maintenance of traffic for pedestrians,” he told fellow commissioners.

“The city has allowed this illegal closure of the sidewalk for, what, the past five years now,” he said.

FROM 10 YEARS AGO: Plugged-in drywall contractor gets city building with no money down (5/23/13)

During the meeting, CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb cited the “long list of code enforcement activity” at 1100 East Baltimore Street.

Between May 3, 2013 and January 14, 2022, the Hendler building was inspected by the housing department approximately 59 times, “most of which determined that the owner failed to abate the vacant building notice.”

Holcomb did not offer any evidence that Johnson, who bought the property in 2012, was ever fined or otherwise penalized by the city.

CHAP commissioner Peter Morrill, the lone vote against authorizing demolition of the Hendler building. (Fern Shen)

CHAP Commissioner Peter Morrill, the only vote against authorizing demolition of the historic creamery. (Fern Shen)

“This commission is being made a fool of” by Johnson, John Murphy, attorney for demolition opponents, declared at the hearing, noting that the company was never held accountable or required to finish the project.

The 59 inspections by the housing department resulted in no penalties against the owner.

Under CHAP provisions, a historic building can be razed only if “substantial hardship” exists.

“The only alleged hardship is that of the owner. And how did this hardship come about? He created it!” Murphy thundered, citing the old joke “about the kid who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court and says, ‘I’m an orphan.’”

Documents show Baltimore’s preservation panel fast-tracked Hendler building demolition (6/13/23)

Speaking for the CHAP staff, Holcomb recommended authorizing Helping Up Mission’s request to proceed with demolition. The commission concurred by a vote of 9-1

Voting yes: Councilman John Bullock, Sara Langmead, Mayra Medeleev, Ann Powell, Gary Rodwell, Tamara Woods, Nichole Battle, Garrett Power and Kuo Pao Lian.

Voting no: Peter Morrill.

Unsafe and Unsalvageable?

As he did in previous hearings, Helping Up’s engineering consultant, William Rockey, described the building as unsafe and unsalvageable.

“You have cracks, you have rusted steel beams, you have pack rust, you have swelling, you have areas of weakened mortar, areas of flaking and spalling brick,” Rockey testified.

The faith-based nonprofit provided estimates of the cost of stabilizing the south facade under various scenarios. Using mostly new materials and saving only a few architectural details the rehab would cost $5.7 million.

“And all for what? A Disney-fied replica that teeters four stories above our site and takes up 30-plus feet of the property we’re seeking to purchase,” said Daniel Stoltzfus, Helping Up’s president and CEO.

But former Baltimore Heritage President William Pencek challenged Stoltzfus’ claims, disputing “the inflated teardown-reconstruct scenario presented as the only option to you.”

“You need to pull out the green eyeshades. I could point out a whole variety of double-counts and flaws in the estimates,” he said, testifying against tearing down the building

Former CHAP chairman Tom Liebel says the Hendler, like Baltimore's Mayfair Theatre, could be saved. (Fern Shen)

Former CHAP Chairman Tom Liebel says the Hendler Creamery, like Baltimore’s Mayfair Theatre, could be saved. (Fern Shen)

Former CHAP Chairman Tom Liebel also opposed demolition.

He said the city should look at the cost of getting a developer to do more than just prop up the facade, but instead do what Johnson had originally promised: incorporate it into a new building.

He argued from personal experience that it can be done.

“I would point to the Mayfair Theatre as an awesome precedent for this,” Liebel continued, referencing the facade of the 153-year-old Beaux Arts showpiece on Baltimore’s Westside that his architecture firm is helping turn into modern apartments.

“We have a building permit, and we’re starting work on that,” he said.

As a temporary measure, Johnson should be made to pay the much lower cost of stopping the building from deteriorating further by, for instance, capping off the tops of the walls, Liebel said. Opponents estimate it would cost about $50,000.

CHAP chairman Harry Spikes presides over an at-times tense hearing on the demolition of the Hendler Creamery building. (Fern Shen)

CHAP Chairman Harry Spikes presides over the at-times tense hearing on the demolition of the Hendler building. (Fern Shen)

Cost of Hiring an Engineer

But the commissioners sought more assurance about the technical feasibility of saving the Hendler. Where was the opponents’ engineer, several of them asked?

Murphy said that Matt Daw, a well-respected local structural engineer, had made a preliminary assessment after looking at the building from the outside.

“I have seen correspondence with Matt Daw, and his initial assumption is that it’s likely to be salvageable,” Liebel told the panel.

Where, several commissioners asked, was the opponents’ engineering study?

Commissioner Sara Langmead said she knew of Daw’s reputation, but found it significant that he “was not willing to put his findings in writing.”

Murphy said Daw was unable to attend the hearing because of a conflict.

After the meeting, demolition opponents said they were not able to quickly come up with the $7,500 needed to hire Daw.

Several nonprofits were willing to help, Donna Beth Joy Shapiro said, but only if their contribution to the effort could be made through another nonprofit.

Neither Baltimore Heritage nor Preservation Maryland were willing to act as a pass-through for the funds.

Heritage Director: “I’m torn over it”

Baltimore Heritage Executive Director Johns Hopkins had expressed ambivalence about the Hendler demolition request in a March 2 email obtained by The Brew.

“I see Hendler’s is on the agenda and am assuming you are going to recommend clearing it for demolition,” Hopkins wrote to CHAP’s Eric Holcomb. “We haven’t taken a position and I’m torn over it. If you have a report or anything you can share to help us get our heads around this, I’d appreciate it.”

Hopkins also shared with Holcomb that a local reporter had contacted him about West Baltimore’s recently demolished historic Sellers Mansion, “trying to come up with an article on who’s to blame.”

“I told him I thought trying to point to blame was not appropriate and that the elephant in the room is that there were a dozen factors working against the building rooted in racism, disinvestment, stereotyping, canceling the Red Line, etc. and that these are what we need to focus on,” Hopkins assured Holcomb.

“I’m not sure how much of an impact I made on him, but there you go,” Hopkins concluded.

“The current owners should reduce their price until preservation becomes feasible”  – Charlie Duff, Jubilee Baltimore.

Other well-known figures in local preservation circles did side with demolition foes, including Charlie Duff, founder of Jubilee Baltimore.

“If the Helping Up Mission, a wonderful organization, cannot afford to preserve the façade, the current owners should reduce their price until preservation becomes feasible,” Duff wrote in a statement submitted to CHAP.

“You should not allow them to profit from demolition by neglect,” he added.

Acknowledging that things went wrong, Commissioner Garrett Power, like others on the panel, described CHAP as being helpless to respond to it.

“Perhaps obligations weren’t met,” Power said. “We can’t cure that. We don’t have the capacity to fix it.”

The Hendler Creamery Building, shown after its owner removed a wall and the roof, sits in the middle of Baltimore's historic Jonestown neighborhood. (Google Earth)

The Hendler building (center), shown after its owner removed a wall and the roof, sits in Baltimore’s historic Jonestown neighborhood. (Google Earth)

Poison Pill?

As for next steps, Murphy said his clients have 30 days to decide whether to appeal CHAP’s decision to the circuit court.

Meanwhile negotiations are underway over the potential sale of the property, which Holcomb said is assessed at $1,515,900.

Helping Up acknowledged that there is a clause in its contract with Kevin Johnson that requires that the structural steel used to shore up the building be turned over to his company, presumably to sell.

Demolition opponent Pencek called that a “poison pill” clause and warned the commissioners that it “exacerbates the cost and feasibility of meaningful preservation.”

Holcomb said he plans to ask the city law department to study a possible legal claim against the developer for his failure to maintain the property properly.

At top right, how the Hendler Creamery building looked when developer Kevin Johnson bought it. Other photos show the building's south facade today. Bottom left, Fred Shoken photographs it. (Fern Shen)

At top right, how the Hendler Creamery building looked when developer Kevin Johnson bought it. Other photos show the building’s south facade today. Bottom left, Fred Shoken photographs it. (Fern Shen)

Could CHAP find someone to save the Hendler?

Demolition opponent and former CHAP staffer Fred Shoken noted after the hearing that Article 6 of the Baltimore City Code allows CHAP to use funds for “acquiring, restoring and possible reselling of properties that have historical or architectural significance.”

“But it seems like it’s never been done,” Shoken said.

At yesterday’s hearing, Holcomb suggested that it won’t be happening under his watch, either.

“This is a preservation commission, not a restoration commission.”

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